Tomorrow I will assign my creative writing students this assignment: in one paragraph or more, answer this question, “Why do you write?” It’s a question I ask at the beginning of the semester, and it’s one that follows a reading of Joan Didion’s well-known piece, “Why I Write.” In it, Didion says she writes in order to understand her own mind: “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” I am often amazed at the answers my students give. Some are honest or realistic — they write for school and for a grade, nothing more — then there are these gems:
“I write because I’m trying to take care of myself.”
“I write because sometimes there are feelings and thoughts I cannot express out loud to others.”
“I write to tell my story.”
“I write because I like to imagine and create different stories.”
“I write because it is the one thing I feel most comfortable doing but never comfortable with anyone else seeing it.”
“Writing frees my mind of the many burdens and anxieties that are placed on me everyday.”
“There are no boundaries to writing and I think that’s what I like best about it.”
To be honest, I have given this assignment several times, but I’ve never written an answer to it myself. Why do I write? As I was combing the assignments from last semester for this blog post, I noticed one student wrote that he writes “to be honest,” and I thought that was a pretty deep statement to make. Then I continued reading and realized that “to be honest” was a modifier for this fuller sentence: “To be honest, I don’t write for personal reasons, but I do enjoy writing.” Crushed, I recognized that I was taken by his actual words because this may be why I write: to be honest with myself.
Yesterday, on the first day of school, I gave a short lecture to my creative writing students about the value, the importance, the significance of writing. “If you’re taking this class because you think it will be an easy A,” I said, “you will be mistaken. I take writing very seriously, and I want to work with students that are serious about writing.” I added, “If you’re scared, then you should stay.” Ears perked and eyebrows were raised. I’m sure they were thinking, don’t you mean, if you’re scared, go? Writing is scary, especially honest writing, the act of putting yourself on the page, heart and soul, for others to critique, interpret, misinterpret. Honest writing and sharing that work are both risky. When others get your writing wrong, it can hurt. (Note: teach how to separate the writer from the work.) Later in the day, a student from that morning class sent me an email saying my talk scared her, and she wondered if she should drop the class, or could she talk to me ASAP. I thought, this is good; she is taking writing seriously, she may even be nervous about how honest she wants to be in her writing, or at least she is beginning to think of writing as a serious medium that deserves attention, her attention, and now she deserves my attention.
To be honest…
I found recently that I have been censoring my journal entries. Usually, before bed, I jot down the day’s events, not all of them, not the minutiae, but the special moments and my thoughts about those moments. Usually I admit my deepest and darkest feelings, because I know my journal (at least for now) is for my eyes only. But of late, I’ve been “editing” my reactions to people, places, and things. Why? So I can look back and feel “normal” or look back and feel untroubled? Is it our social media culture, which seems to demand optimistic status updates (I read a study)? Can I blame it for changing the way I express myself even to myself? I don’t know. Instead of risking the possibility of censoring myself, of being dishonest, I’ve stopped journaling about my day altogether and have instead started writing down my dreams first thing in the morning (so I can continue to write daily). It’s been a fun exercise — I’ve found the more I record, the more I remember — but I still would like to reflect on some aspects of my days and my emotions with them. I’m blocked by my lack of honesty though.
This morning I finished reading Joan Didion’s heartbreakingly honest memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. She reflects on the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” All week I’ve been wanting to write about Didion’s book on grief and mourning; I sent long emails to a friend who is also a writer and English teacher. In those messages, I reflected on grief, on my own experience with loss, and on how Didion’s book speaks to me at my core, the way the right book can do if read at the right time (when the reader’s experience and the book’s message are perfectly aligned). But all I can think of now is how honest Didion is in her writing. She admits to crazy thinking: she didn’t want to throw John’s shoes away because he might come back and he would need shoes; she wanted an autopsy done, because she wanted to see if his heart condition was a simple one that could have been fixed (so that he could be brought back). She writes, “The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.” This comes near the end of the book, which again seems painfully honest to me: Didion is saying that she has spent the entire length of a book reflecting on the year after her husband died, during which she cared for her sick daughter Quintana (who also died) trying to understand how John died, working to find meaning in his life and in his death, and in their life together, and she found nothing. Nothing. She is no closer to understanding John’s death than she was a year ago; in fact, she admits to feeling further away from understanding, further away from John himself: “In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my every day seemed today … so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic.” She resolves, though, to let go: “Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water.”
I think I was most drawn to the students’ whose responses I chose above because they explain some of the reasons I write: to take care of myself (through journaling), because sometimes there are feelings and thoughts I cannot express out loud, to tell my story, to create (meaning), because writing is the medium I feel most comfortable with, because it frees my mind of its burdens, and because writing has no boundaries (it is limitless, yes, but now to define ‘limitless’). But I would add “to be honest,” not as a modifier but a simple declarative statement. I write to be honest with myself. That is how I would answer the question I will pose to my students tomorrow. I write to be honest with myself, to explore the layers of what is within and to examine myself as honestly as possible, even if it leaves me raw and exposed. I try to anyway.